The Trouble with Telltale
Let me tell you a tale...
Picture this: It's March 2011. You're a young, bright-eyed gamer, and you see two episodes of a game based on one of your favourite movies of all time, Back to the Future. You convince your mum to finally give her debit card details to the scary black rectangle under the TV and, within minutes, you're playing your first ever Telltale game.
I don't need to imagine this scenario. This was my first experience with the company.
Telltale has been making games for years, with pretty much all of them being based around a famous intellectual property owned by another company—for instance, the aforementioned Back to the Future game. But everything changed in 2012 with The Walking Dead.
With this game, and an innovative new gameplay style in which your actions and dialogue choices have direct consequences on the story and character relations, Telltale rocketed to wide-stream popularity, and rightly so. From that point, all future Telltale games based themselves around this same gameplay style: from Batman, to Tales from the Boarderlands, to, my personal favourite, The Wolf Among Us.
This company is certainly considered a bit of a darling online, partly because of their dedication to genuine storytelling in the gaming industry and partly because of their unique interpretations of existing stories; the Batman story particularly springs to mind, as it plays with established canon in a way no other Batman story has, to my knowledge.
With all this said, however, it must be said that the company themselves have... uh... shall we say, a worrying history regarding their business and the way that they release their games. Episodic gaming in and of itself is fine, provided there are consistent releases of the episodes. The Walking Dead saw a large delay between episodes two and three when it was releasing, and even my personal favourite game, The Wolf Among Us, saw a frankly shocking four-month delay with episode two. If a company declares their games will be released episodically, and they offer a one-month release rate, we shouldn't be as lenient as we are with the company, myself included, as I am certainly guilty of such leniency.
This isn't as large a deal for me, anymore, as I now wait for all five episodes to be released before I play them. I guess it's just a preference for me to sit down and let myself get locked into a game for ten hours, rather than enjoying it piecemeal. What is an issue, however, and definitely shouldn't be forgiven, is the buggy and unreliable releases and conditions of the games themselves.
Batman was the first game to utilise an updated edition of Telltale's proprietary game engine. Now, why a company with Unity's CEO doesn't use Unity as an engine, with its wide compatibility and capability, is beyond me. However, the issue is not that the Telltale tool isn't Unity. No. The issue is really that it appears to be significantly buggier than Unity. Batman launched with the game locked at bizarre resolutions, defaulting to the integrated graphics card of your motherboard (no, seriously), lock-ups, crashes and, essentially, the entire game as unplayable. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but as the excellent and severely underrated Bitscreed shows in this video, these games have a weird habit of being undercooked.
The problem appears to be the fact that Telltale will take on a huge number of projects at any one time, and they are, unfortunately, unequipped to handle all these games at the same time. There's, of course, no shame in having a slower release rate with higher quality (something Ubisoft would do well to learn), but it would seem this is the worst possible thing for Telltale. If you ask me, I think the solution would really be to simply take on fewer projects at once, and make sure the games are basically nearly complete before you start releasing them, to make it easier to stick to a specified release schedule.
I love Telltale games and I love the games they've released. But, with the final season of The Walking Dead releasing its first episode recently, and The Wolf Among Us 2 being delayed, it thankfully seems as if they're starting to limit their releases and rushed games. I hope this is the case, and that they will continue it, but we may never know. Also, just as a personal comment—with the CEO of Lionsgate being on the Telltale board of directors—PLEASE MAKE A GAME BASED AROUND SAW. That has such awesome potential, man.
Telltale Games will (hopefully) remember that.